Ride London: An Experiment On Two Wheels

If you’ve ever had the good fortune of eating a Bakewell Tart Nakd bar you’ll know why I am slightly fanatical about them.  They are obscenely delicious and about as far removed as you can get from the ‘taste like chocolate, texture like cardboard’ category that most healthy snack bars slot into.  However, aside from a hefty stock in my local Tesco Express, they seem to be a rare find.  In a bid to share the joy, a couple of weeks ago I bought one for my boss.  In return she said, “Not quite the same – but would you like my Ride London place on Sunday?”  In the spirit of saying yes more I, erm, said yes.

At this point the furthest I had ever cycled was 32 miles and that was on the completely flat Bristol to Bath path.  I realised with some trepidation that I had actually never cycled up a hill before.  With an upcoming three days of cycling in and around the Lake District pencilled into my diary my cycling abilities, or lack thereof, had been playing on my mind for some time.  This would be the test, I decided; if I could make it through Ride London in one piece, I was allowed to go and play in the hills the following weekend.  If not, it was game over.

You see, cycling has just never really been my thing.  It sits somewhere between brain surgery and speaking fluent Dutch on the list of Things I Can’t Do.  When I first bought my bike a few months ago, I headed out into rush hour traffic one Wednesday morning and attempted to make my way across London to work.  As a non-driver, the traffic both terrified and baffled me.  I fell off and arrived at work late, muddy and shaken.  Things improved after that as I studied the highway code, read articles about asserting myself on the road and spent an afternoon learning basic cycling proficiency with my Dad.  I was no longer a menace on the roads but a few weeks later I had a nasty crash into a wall and took most of the skin off my forearm and realised that I was, potentially, still a menace to myself. 

When my alarm went off pre-6am on Sunday 2nd August, I wondered what on Earth I was doing.  I got dressed, ate a banana and headed to Stratford where the race would begin.  Getting to the start line was a challenge in itself, wary about cycling there and adding on any extra miles but knowing that the tube wouldn’t welcome Dwayne on as a passenger.  I opted for a bus but got sternly turned away when I tried to board.  Apparently it’s common knowledge that you can’t take bikes on buses – who knew?

Eventually, I climbed into the back of an Uber and started to rifle through my race pack for the first time (organised as ever…).  The first thing I noticed was that cycling races were much more complicated than running races.  There were a seemingly endless amount of stickers and tags to attach to everything I owned.  When cyclists started appearing in every direction, I asked the driver to pull over in a bus lane and let me out.  He hauled my bike rather roughly from the boot and the chain came unhooked.  I stood on the pavement, trying to reattach it and felt that panicky feeling rising in my throat, tears lurking somewhere in the back of my eyes.  What was I doing?  I knew nothing about bikes.

After some fiddling around, my chain was back where it should be and, completely covered in grease and oil, I re-mounted Dwayne and followed the lycra-clad crowd towards the start line.  Surrounded by other cyclists, I felt uncomfortable about how completely unprepared I was kit-wise.  Whilst everyone else was kitted out in cleats and padded shorts, gripping their thin-wheeled road bikes, I was wearing my gym kit and an old pair of trainers and hauling Dwayne the touring bike around.  Instead of being neatly stored in the pockets of a cycling jersey, my  snacks were stashed in an old running belt I’d found in the bottom of the wardrobe.

The count down began though and, read or not, before long the klaxon was going and we were being ushered out of the starting pen to the tune of “I Will Survive”, Gloria Gaynor singing her heart out as  our feet hit the pedals.  I had absolutely no idea if I could cycle 100 miles but I was about to find out. 

I passed the 10 mile marker in 40 minutes and was quite impressed by my speedy pedaling, despite the fact that almost every single person who had started in the same wave had overtaken me.  My thighs were burning already and we hadn’t even entered the Surrey hills yet but boosted by what was, for me, a good pace I carried on going.  We cycled through Richmond Park, where I hadn’t been since the disastrous marathon a few months prior, and I hopped off my bike to refill my water bottles feeling a pang of nostalgia.

I’d like to be able to give you a mile-by-mile account of the race but, frankly, the miles blurred together in a reel of hills, stops, water, downhill.  Riding closed roads through Central London and Surrey was pretty incredible and when I reached the top of Box Hill, having cycled the entire way, I felt proud of myself in a way I never really have before.  My own two legs had pedaled myself and Dwayne up to the top of a stonking big hill and looking out over Surrey from our elevated point, I started to really appreciate this whole cycling malarkey for this first time.

When I set out on that Sunday morning, I had absolutely no idea if I could cycle 100 miles.  I crossed the finish line in view of Buckingham Palace and collected my Ride London medal but, as it turns out, I still don’t quite know if I can cycle 100 miles.  The refuel hub at mile 50 had ran out of food and, despite being ahead of schedule at this point, I got distracted waiting in a long queue to buy a hot dog and chatting to some newfound queue friends.  By the time I’d wolfed down my food and refilled my bottles, I realised that too much time had slipped away and I was forced to take the diversion and miss Leith Hill, having missed the cut off time to cycle the full 100 miles.

What I do know with some certainty though is that I can cycle 94 miles and I can do so in my old gym kit with clunk old Dwayne the bike in tow and it didn’t occur to me that I should be disappointed about not having quite made the 100 for more than a split second.  Dwayne and I weren’t built for speed or for feeling competitive.  We were built for good views, a sunny day spent outdoors and for eating absolutely everything.  We succeeded on all three of the latter with a hefty sense of accomplishment thrown in for good measure. 

It’s fun doing things you can already do but it’s almost definitely more fun doing things that you have no idea if you can do.  Instead of building up a bucket list, I’m working on obliterating my Things I Can’t Do list.  Just Brain surgery and fluent Dutch to conquer next…

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